In December alone, about a third of 8,034 classes in DeKalb Schools where regular instructors were absent did not get substitute teachers. District officials said 2,623 of those classrooms, about 32 percent, did not receive a substitute
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

She applied to be a substitute teacher. Despite shortage, DeKalb never called.

My AJC colleague Marlon Walker reports this week on the struggles of the DeKalb County School District to find substitute teachers, discovering through his research that:

In December alone, about a third of 8,034 classes where regular instructors were absent did not get substitute teachers. District officials said 2,623 of those classrooms, about 32 percent, did not receive a substitute. That could mean other teachers cover that classroom during their planning periods, that a teacher goes between two classrooms at a given period, or that students go without an instructor — either for the whole day or some part of it.

DeKalb has filled classrooms on an average of about 68 percent of the time since the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year. Other major metro Atlanta school districts have filled classrooms at least 87 percent of the time, or more.

In this guest column, DeKalb parent and former AJC education reporter Patti Ghezzi shares her frustrating attempt to work as a substitute teacher in DeKalb. Her experience may help explain the shortage of subs in the district.

If I can be allowed a personal note here, Ghezzi is a super volunteer for DeKalb schools, giving time not only to her own child’s school but to other schools as well.  This was a loss to the district. 

By Patti Ghezzi

Last fall, a meme caught my attention. It said: “Write down the things you always wanted to do. Now go do those things.” My list included teach elementary school, work as a school social worker and work as a school counselor.  

To help me decide whether I should pursue a career in education, I applied to be a substitute in DeKalb County. It took the better part of a day to complete the application, between contacting colleagues to serve as references and running down transcripts from the colleges I attended for my undergraduate degree in journalism and graduate degree in writing.  

I contacted the school district’s employment office several times for clarification on the process. Finally, a representative told me, “Congratulations, your application is complete.”  

That was October 22. The next step, she said, was to wait for a phone call from the school district. The call never came.  

I took a job with a nonprofit organization that works with immigrants. The work is rewarding and fascinating, and I am thrilled to get to do something so different, an opportunity that didn’t make my list because I didn’t know it existed.  

Still, it stung when I saw this week’s story, “DeKalb Struggles to Find Substitutes amid Teacher Shortage.”  

Why was my application ignored if the district needs subs? I contacted the district to confirm that I had an application on file. I asked why my application had languished. The representative encouraged me to go to an upcoming substitute teacher job fair. When I called to check the status of my application last fall, a representative advised me to make sure my contact information was up-to-date.  

I was so excited for the first few weeks after I applied. The principal of my local school, Avondale Elementary, said he would start using me as soon as I was approved by the school district. He asked which grades I wanted to work with, and I debated whether to play it safe with kindergarten or be brave and take fourth and fifth. He checked in with me a few times and contacted the school district on my behalf.  

I ran through lesson plans in my head and went through my daughter’s bookcases looking for books to bring in for various grades. I worried whether I would be able to maintain order in a classroom. I checked off all the schools within reasonable distance of my house and vowed to try middle and high school as well as elementary to determine where I might be most useful. 

In the story about DeKalb’s substitute teacher shortage, a board member wondered if the county’s reputation is to blame for classrooms with no one in charge. While reputation surely plays a role for permanent teachers, most substitutes just want to work close to home.  

I have lived in DeKalb County for 24 years, and I have had many occasions to venture into DeKalb schools, as a volunteer when I was in my 20s and as an education reporter when I was in my 30s. While covering the Georgia State Board of Education, several officials who did not like my coverage remarked that I would be better suited to teaching than journalism.  

In my 40s, I was PTO co-president at my daughter’s charter school. Then, after I swore I was done with school volunteering, the arrival of a new principal inspired me to get involved at Avondale Elementary, which is right around the corner from my house. 

For all DeKalb’s problems— superintendent turnover, scandals and the reality that some schools offer far more opportunities than others— I have always loved being inside DeKalb schools. I always sign up for Career Day, and I am now signed up to be a reader on Read Across America Day.  

Students in DeKalb have just as much potential as students anywhere. They just need the right people to help them realize that potential.  

I thought I might be one of those people. Instead, I am on different path and now plan to spend my 50s in the nonprofit sector. Maybe I will pursue education when I’m in my 60s, and maybe DeKalb will hire me then. 

 

 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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